The Environment and the 1991 Persian Gulf War
The Persian Gulf War of 1991 brought serious environmental damage to the region. The world's largest oil spill, estimated at as much as 8 million barrels, fouled gulf waters and the coastal areas of Kuwait, Iran, and much of Saudi Arabia's Persian Gulf shoreline. In some of the sections of the Saudi coast that sustained the worst damage, sediments were found to contain 7 percent oil. The shallow areas affected normally provide feeding grounds for birds, and feeding and nursery areas for fish and shrimp. Because the plants and animals of the seafloor are the basis of the food chain, damage to the shoreline has consequences for the whole shallow-water ecosystem, including the multimillion-dollar Saudi fisheries industry.
The spill had a severe impact on the coastal area surrounding Madinat al Jubayl as Sinaiyah, the major industrial and population center newly planned and built by the Saudi government. The spill threatened industrial facilities in Al Jubayl because of the seawater cooling system for primary industries and threatened the supply of potable water produced by seawater-fed desalination plants. The Al Jubayl community harbor and Abu Ali Island, which juts into the gulf immediately north of Al Jubayl, experienced the greatest pollution, with the main effect of the spill concentrated in mangrove areas and shrimp grounds. Large numbers of marine birds, such as cormorants, grebes, and auks, were killed when their plumage was coated with oil. In addition, beaches along the entire Al Jubayl coastline were covered with oil and tar balls.
The exploding and burning of approximately 700 oil wells in Kuwait also created staggering levels of atmospheric pollution, spewed oily soot into the surrounding areas, and produced lakes of oil in the Kuwaiti desert equal in volume to twenty times the amount of oil that poured into the gulf, or about 150 million barrels. The soot from the Kuwaiti fires was found in the snows of the Himalayas and in rainfall over the southern members of the Community of Independent States, Iran (former Soviet Union), Oman, and Turkey. Residents of Riyadh reported that cars and outdoor furniture were covered daily with a coating of oily soot. The ultimate effects of the airborne pollution from the burning wells have yet to be determined, but samples of soil and vegetation in Ras al Khafji in northern Saudi Arabia revealed high levels of particles of oily soot incorporated into the desert ecology. The UN Environmental Programme warned that eating livestock that grazed within an area of 7,000 square kilometers of the fires, or 1,100 kilometers from the center of the fires, an area that included northern Saudi Arabia, posed a danger to human health. The overall effects of the oil spill and the oil fires on marine life, human health, water quality, and vegetation remained to be determined as of 1992. Moreover, to these two major sources of environmental damage must be added large quantities of refuse, toxic materials, and between 173 million and 207 million liters of untreated sewage in sand pits left behind by coalition forces.
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